A Florida company called National Campaign Supply claims it created the “I Voted” sticker—that 1-inch oval you get after you've filled in a ballot at your polling place. The point behind the sticker, according to the company's website, is that “Voting is contagious—when co-workers and friends see this sticker, they remember to vote!” (Newer versions of the sticker say things like “I Voted Absentee” and “I Voted by Mail”—how you're actually supposed to get one of those stickers isn't clear.)
In theory, it's a good selling point—a bunch of similar sticker companies cropped up in National Campaign's wake. But the contagion effect hasn't seemed to bear out. The “I Voted” sticker came into being around the same time voter turnout in the U.S. hit an all-time low—57.4 person for the 1988 presidential election, only to reach another low, 54.2 percent, eight years later. You could argue that Bill Clinton was a shoe-in that year, but there's always lots of other good stuff on the ballot that deserves attention, what with Californians' propensity to make every issue into a proposition.
But it's not like we, as a country, have been stellar voters, at least not for the past few decades. In 1964 (the furthest back the U.S. Census Bureau has tracked voter turnout), only 69.3 percent of eligible voters voted. In school-grade terms, that's a D-plus. It also happens to be the largest voter turnout in the last 43 years. According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, in a survey of 172 countries that hold democratic elections, the U.S. ranks No. 139. Better than Pakistan but not as good as Bangladesh.
For local elections, it only gets worse. Out of 593,445 registered voters living in the city of San Diego, only around 210,000 showed up to the polls on June 3 to vote for mayor—that's a 35-percent turnout. Yikes. Even if you were feeling lukewarm about the mayoral race, chances are you had a council representative or school-board trustee to consider and, of course, city attorney.
Sure, we've opined on these pages that there are some people we'd hope would stay home from the polls rather than muck things up with their uneducated horse-picking (we're amazed at how many people we meet who have no clue who their City Council representative is). But, at the same time, there's something about encouraging people to remove themselves from the democratic process that feels a little dirty and counter-productive. More and more, there are good non-partisan voter guides readily available online, like the League of Women Voters' “Elections 101” that includes national and local election information—so there's no justifiable reason to remain uninformedSo what gives with the dismal turnout? There have been plenty of studies looking at why people vote or don't vote.
For starters, there's the theory of diminishing returns—the larger the voting population, the less likely it is that your individual vote will make a difference. Following that theory, why would any rational person put in the time to study the issues, go to the polls (or fill out and mail in a ballot) if there's no payoff for that effort? What you get in return is little more than self-satisfaction (one study described voters as people who are natural “cooperators”), and one of those little stickers.
More recent studies of voter behavior have explored the concept of altruism as a motivator—meaning that concern for the well-being of others, and not self-interest, is what drives people to the polls. Except when it comes to taxes, it seems. As Princeton economist Larry Bartles pointed out in an American Prospect article a few years back, called “Homer Gets a Tax Cut” (the title inspired by a Simpsons episode), we'll support tax cuts for the wealthy because we don't want to pay higher taxes, either.
Will the theory of the altruistic voter drive people to the polls on Nov. 4? That's when Californians will be asked whether they support amending the state Constitution to keep people of the same sex from marrying. The fact that a segment of the population views the right to marry as a benefit—and the ban's supporters are having a hard time explaining in concrete terms how allowing same-sex marriages will harm the rest of us—is probably what's driving poll numbers that show that the majority of Californians don't plan to support the ban. A late-May Field Poll found that while 51 percent of Californians support same-sex marriage, 54 percent oppose banning it.
Not only will we be asked to consider a civil-rights issue in November, but there's plenty of other stuff that's weighing heavily on our collective conscience: the tanking economy, the mortgage crisis, the war. Locally, San Diego's still not financially solvent—no doubt you know someone who's busted a tire driving over a pothole the size of Rhode Island. Gotta do something about those potholes.
Who knows—maybe we'll see a 50- or 60-percent turnout in November. Maybe we'll even approach 70 percent. That's not great but it's passing. And maybe that's the best we can do.
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